Saturday, 14 April 2012

'Learning technology' - an outmoded term?

In an email conversation with Lawrie Phipps and David Baume from SEDA's Digital Literacy project, we were looking at the term 'learning technology'.

I suggested that the term comes from a time when institutional LTA systems were being developed and implemented for the first time. Important because one of the great powers of digital technology is interoperability, and making information easily shared among all the people and processes involved in learning. But since the emergence of VLEs, I think different strengths of digital technology have come to the fore, especially portability and ubiquity. Networks, tools and services that happen to be useful for learning have become much more available, disappearing at one end into disciplinary practices (GIS are hardly 'learning technologies' but 'technologies of geographical practice'), and at the other end into learners' personal and social habits (blogs, wikis, social networks, digital media…). So it has become less useful to talk about 'learning technologies', which implies that the learning is in the system, and more important to talk about specifically educational practices (LTA and research/scholarship) in a digital environment - an environment in which activity is always already infused with digital information and communication options, and in which this fundamentally changes the meaning of the activity.

I do think that in all this we must give ourselves the means to describe the material, social, cultural effects of the digital as distinct from other human technologies such as print, writing, picture-making etc. In part just because these effects are becoming harder and harder to see - particularly for younger students who have been surrounded by them from birth and have them, so to speak, pressed up against their eyes. As educators and developers we need to open up spaces in which it is possible to critique these effects, to reflect on how they act in our own lives/learning, and to adopt critical stances towards the ways they act on us collectively - I mean specifically, materially, historically etc and not imagining digital technologies to have some magical powers that other technologies do not. This space can't be opened if we adopt the position that 'it's all just technology' or 'the kids don't see the difference so it doesn't exist'.

As a further complication of terms, I've grown quite keen on the word 'educational' for all its baggage. Teaching/educating others is a different set of activities to learning, or at least a radically different 'set towards' those activities (a 'set towards' the learning of the other person). All animals learn but only social animals teach, and I dislike the over-valuing of informal learning if what that means is the basic human aspiration to help others to learn is side-lined. There are enough people gunning for the teaching profession. And again in the interests of making visible, learning/teaching that takes place in institutions/settings specifically designed for those activities is different from learning/teaching that takes place in other settings. That's not to say new relationships should not be developed between formal educational settings and other places of learning, and in fact digital technology is critical in mediating those new relationships. But if we lose sight of what is different and special about times/places of formal learning it becomes very difficult to bring those relationships into being, or indeed to pursue the aim of equal access to those special times and places which has been the driving force behind educational thinking for much of the last two centuries.

So I think we are talking about educational practice in a digital society. Not as neat as learning technology, but for me it puts the emphasis of the current political/social/educational project in the right places. Defending formal education. Defending the right to formal education. Placing it in its proper social context. Understanding that the social context has been changed beyond recognition by the ubiquitous use of digital forms of information and communication, and that this would change the whole meaning of educational practice even if those social changes had not in many cases originated in the educational sphere.